Despite the COVID-19 pandemic pushing the Stanley Cup Playoffs back to August with the entire tournament being played without fans, the 2019-20 season was a journey Lightning fans will never forget. After reaching the playoffs as the two seed in the Eastern Conference, the Lightning set out to avenge their failure in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. In those playoffs, the Presidents’ Trophy winning Lightning were swept in the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets, including blowing a 3-0 lead in Game 1.
The two-seeded Lightning took on the Blue Jackets once again in the first round and in Game 1, the Lightning defeated the Blue Jackets 3-2 in FIVE overtimes. From there, the Lightning would defeat the Blue Jackets in five games, gaining sweet revenge. The Lightning would then eliminate the Boston Bruins in five games in the second round, the New York Islanders in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals and in the Stanley Cup Finals, they defeated the Dallas Stars in six games to win their first Stanley Cup since 2004. After years of the current core coming up short in the playoffs, they finally broke through to shed their reputation as playoff failures. They did all of this with team legend Steven Stamkos only playing about three minutes during the entirety of the postseason.
The Lightning come into this season as the defending Stanley Cup champions and looking to repeat. This will be an unique season in the NHL with only 56 regular-season games and the 31 teams are all separated into four corporate-sponsored divisions. This season, teams will only face their division rivals. This season, the Lightning are in the Discover NHL Central Division and will battle the following: the Stars, Carolina Hurricanes, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, Nashville Predators, Florida Panthers and the Blue Jackets. Here is an overview of the Lightning across the ice this season.
The Lightning are already facing adversity before the regular season even begins as last year’s leading point scorer, Nikita Kucherov, will miss the regular season with hip surgery. Also, with their tight cap situation, the Lightning had to let go of Cedric Paquette who had 18 points last season. The scoring load will now fall on the shoulders of Brayden Point and Stamkos, who is returning from offseason muscle-core surgery. With the absence of Kucherov, Alex Killorn (49), Ondrej Palat (41) and Anthony Cirelli (44) will assume a larger role in the offense on the wings. They still have plenty of firepower as the Lightning finished with 243 goals scored last season, which led the NHL. The Lightning have the depth to overcome Kucherov’s absence, however, he is still their best player and their scoring effectiveness will take a hit throughout the season.
The Lightning traded defenseman Braydon Coburn, along with Paquette, to shore up cap space, and have placed Luke Schenn on waivers. So while depth took a hit this offseason, the same key defenders on the Stanley Cup champion team will return in their pursuit of a repeat. Conn Smythe Trophy winner Victor Hedman returns to anchor the defense once again. His physical play, along with his playmaking, was crucial in the Lightning’s run in the postseason with 22 points. Joining Hedman is Mikhail Sergachev and Kevin Shattenkirk, who each had 34 points in the regular season last year. With a blend of youth and experience between the two, the Lightning a dependable unit, ranking 10th last season in goals allowed.
The Lightning bolster one of the best goaltenders in the NHL in Andrei Vasilevskiy. Vasilevskiy finished the 2019-20 regular season with 31 wins, ranking first among all NHL goaltenders, and finished third in saves. He was strong in the postseason with a 18-7 record, a .927 save percentage (Sv%) and a 1.90 goals allowed per game (GA/G). Curtis McElhinney, who went 8-7 last year and Anders Nilsson, who the Lightning acquired in the Coburn trade, will provide depth during the grind of the regular season. With Vasilevskiy set to take the reins this postseason, the Lightning are in good hands between the posts once again.
The Lightning have one of the deepest rosters in the NHL despite having to shed some salary this offseason. This will be needed to overcome the loss of Kucherov for the regular season. However, their offense will not be as potent in the regular season, putting more pressure on the defense and goaltending. The Lightning have the talent to overcome this and finish near the top of their division. I am picking the Lightning to finish first as the Stars are short-handed themselves and the Hurricanes are still growing their youth. In the playoffs, with Kucherov back, they will be one of the top title contenders this postseason and will make the Stanley Cup Finals, losing to the Vegas Golden Knights in six games.